Dept. of Education School Report Cards Should Be Reviewed in Context

As part of its accountability initiative — ultimately relating back to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act — the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has compiled report cards for every public school in Rhode Island. In the spring, the department released its scores and rankings for schools teaching different grade levels, and the public is in the process of figuring out how to apply them to the civic debate.

According to RIDE’s fact sheet for its accountability system, elementary and middle schools achieve their scores based on the following categories:

  • 30 points for proficiency: Averaging reading and math scores, what percentage of students are “proficient” on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests?
  • 5 points for distinction: Averaging reading and math, what percentage of students are “proficient with distinction” (i.e., highly proficient) on the NECAPs?
  • 30 points for gap-closing: Combining ethnic and economic categories into one group and special education and English-language learners into another, how much of a gap is there between such students’ scores and those of students not in either?
  • 10 points for progress: Does the school appear to be on track for targets set by RIDE for 2017?
  • 25 points for growth: Are students progressing from one year to the next compared with their academic peers? This measure also breaks students into three groups: “all students” and the groups described in “gap-closing.”

A conspicuous shortcoming of this methodology is that it effectively gives extra credit to schools that don’t have subgroups to compare for gap-closing purposes.  If a school doesn’t have a certain number of minority, English-language learner, special education, or economically disadvantaged students, those categories simply don’t count in the average, and the school gets 30 points toward its total.  That’s potentially the difference between “commended” and “typical.”

A review of the report cards for the 17 commended schools shows that nearly one in four has no subgroups at all — four of them, or 23.5%. Another 10 (58.8%) only have enough students in the “economically disadvantaged” category to count, and just three (17.6%) have data in the disability category.  (See here for all schools’ scores.)

A closer look at “economic disadvantage” is justified. That category is defined by participation in the National School Lunch Program, by which the federal government subsidizes meals for school children.  All students can participate, but those from households above 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL) pay a “regular price.”  In Rhode Island, 60% of participants receive reduced prices or free lunches.

For RIDE’s assessment purposes, however, the wide range in circumstances covered by this program should be acknowledged.  For a family of two parents and one child, 185% of FPL is income of $35,316.50. The same family with another child could make up to $42,642.50, and a two-parent, three-child household could earn up to $49,968.50 and still count as “economically disadvantaged.”

It doesn’t detract from the difficulty that such families can face to suggest that there’s quite a difference between growing up at the top of that scale and growing up in the grinding poverty more common in urban areas.

For context, consider the 17 schools at the bottom of RIDE’s ranking: all but one have scores for either black or Hispanic students; 11 count both. Fourteen schools (82.4%)  have enough students with disabilities to count.  Seven (41.2%) count English-language learners.  And every single one of them (100.0%) has economically disadvantaged students.

Click here for elaboration and context.

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